My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Six:
Tracie Tanner lifted the envelope effortlessly from her East German contact and slid it down the front of her blouse. The heat generated by all the bodies crammed together inside the tavern was stifling, and Tracie thought the envelope might have to be peeled away from her skin with a chisel when she finally made it to safety. She felt naked without her weapon, a Beretta 92SB, but her skimpy attire left no room for it.
Tracie had nursed her glass of soda water and loitered on the other side of the room, watching out of the corner of her eye as her contact received the envelope from an extremely nervous Russian bureaucrat, all the while rebuffing a succession of young East German men doing their best to capture her attention.
The moment her contact—she had never met him, had been told only that he was an East German citizen committed to reunification of his country—shook his companion’s hand and turned toward the door, Tracie offered a dazzling smile to the young German currently chatting her up and gave him a little wave. “Nice meeting you.”
The kid blinked in surprise, jaw hanging open, his disappointment obvious. Tracie turned and left him behind, striding across the room to intercept her contact.
The exchange went off without a hitch, and the moment Tracie had secured the envelope, she turned on her heel and began working her way through the dense crowd toward the back of the club. The bass track thumped and the people shimmied as Tracie headed for the swinging door behind the bar leading to the back exit.
She breezed around the open end of the bar, where three bartenders struggled to keep up with their drink orders. As she barged through, the one closest to her raised his eyebrows. “Hey! You’re not allowed back here.” His voice was gruff and insistent.
Tracie smiled brightly and blew him a kiss and continued on. She pushed through the swinging wooden doors as if she owned the place and moved straight toward the service entrance in back. To her right, dozens of silver beer kegs gleamed dully in the washed-out lighting. To her left, far off in the distance at the end of a narrow corridor, she could see people hard at work in a small kitchen. The smell of stale beer and spoiled meat hung in the air, heavy and thick.
Aside from those kitchen workers, Tracie was alone in the storage area, at least for the moment. She had thought the bartenders would be too busy to follow her and she was right. She breathed a sigh of relief, wondering how in the hell it had failed to occur to the KGB to cover this potential escape route. Apparently they considered the possibility of a switch remote, given that they were dealing with a frightened Russian bureaucrat.
She kicked it into high gear now and broke into a trot. As she neared the rear exit, a stern voice from behind her growled, “Stop right there!”
Tracie cursed under her breath as she gauged the distance to the door, calculating the odds of surviving a headlong dash for freedom. It was just a little too far. The Russian secret police were not used to being ignored, and neither were the Stasi, and Tracie knew the operative behind her would be expecting full and immediate compliance, regardless of which organization he represented.
She stopped and turned slowly, holding her arms out at her sides, away from her body, spreading her fingers to show she was unarmed. She hoped the envelope resting against the sweat-soaked skin of her belly was hidden by her blouse. If not, she would probably not survive beyond the next few seconds.
The man who had stopped her wore the forest-green camouflage summer field uniform of the NVA, East Germany’s National People’s Army. Tracie took in the uniform and breathed a sigh of relief. The KGB had indeed thought to cover the back entrance, but had used a People’s Army lieutenant to do so, rather than a KGB or Stasi operative.
She might still get out of this.
“What’s your hurry?” the man said, his weapon trained on Tracie. She said nothing and he took a couple of aggressive steps toward her. She willed him to take a couple more.
A loopy grin spread across her face and Tracie wobbled unsteadily forward a step, then back. She allowed her eyes to glaze over. “What’rr you doing in the ladies room?” she said, intentionally slurring her words. “You shou’nt be in here.” Then she giggled, hoping she wasn’t overdoing it.
The tension in the lieutenant’s posture relaxed slightly and the look of suspicion creasing his face eased a bit. Tracie thought she saw him stifle a grin. The gun, however, remained pointed at her midsection. If he fired now, the slug would probably punch a hole right through the envelope. He took another couple of steps forward, this time moving with more swagger and less aggression, lowering his gun and sealing his fate. He was almost close enough.
As he took another step, Tracie stumbled to one knee. He was eighteen inches in front of her. Any closer and he might conceivably be too close. It was time to act.
She shot to her feet, propelling her body forward, grabbing her captor’s gun with her right hand. The man took a step back in surprise, and Tracie yanked his hand hard, jerking his body toward hers as he squeezed the trigger reflexively. The sound of the gunfire was loud and Tracie hoped the thumping bass beat out in the club had covered most of it. The people working in the kitchen down the hall would have heard, but she wasn’t worried about them.
He clubbed her on the side with his left hand as she used his momentum against him, flicking her head forward, the movement tight and compact. Her forehead impacted the man’s nose and she could hear the bones shatter even above the damned disco music and the ringing in her ears from the gunshot.
He crumpled immediately, blood streaming over his mouth, which he had opened in a scream of pain. It gushed out, spilled down his face, and splattered onto the dirty floor. It looked like Niagara Falls. She grabbed the soldier’s weapon and yanked it away from him. His finger jammed in the trigger guard and Tracie felt it break.
The man staggered, splattering blood onto her leather pants and boots. He was practically out on his feet. She pivoted her hand to the side, like a hitchhiker trolling for a ride, and then reversed direction and slammed the butt of the pistol against his temple. His eyes rolled up into his head and he dropped straight down. She flashed back to her encounter with the security guard in the Ukraine less than ten days ago. All my dates end badly.
She hoped she hadn’t killed the man but couldn’t afford to take the time to find out. By now the KGB agents monitoring the front of the club would have discovered the man they had followed was empty-handed, and it wouldn’t take long before they realized they had been victimized by the oldest trick in the book, the bait-and-switch. Within minutes, maybe less, this place would be blanketed, locked down, and if Tracie was still here when that happened she would never get out alive.
The sound of pounding footsteps told her the soldier’s gunshot had been heard. She dropped to one knee and turned, raising the man’s gun. An elderly man and woman—they each had to be seventy years old if they were a day—burst out of the hallway and into the storage area. They were undoubtedly the pair she had seen working in the kitchen, although they had been too far away to identify for sure. “One more step and you die,” she said in German, pointing the gun in their direction, hoping her voice hadn’t carried into the bar.
The pair skidded to a stop, the old woman banging into the old man in front, sending him careening helplessly toward Tracie. He fell to the floor and then scrabbled backward, almost knocking the old woman over in the process. It looked like a Three Stooges routine, and under other circumstances might have been funny.
Right now, though, the only thing on Tracie’s mind was escape. She had already been inside the building far too long. She rose to her feet and said, “Go back to the kitchen and stay there for at least ten minutes. If you move before ten minutes has passed, I’ll come back and kill you both. Do you understand?”
The pair nodded at the same time, then turned and hurried back down the narrow hallway. They moved quickly, but did not scream or yell into the front of the club for help, as Tracie had been afraid they might. She waited until they had reentered the kitchen, then sprinted for the door.
She burst into the night, the oppressive heat of the club vanishing in an instant. The service entrance opened into a narrow, trash-littered alley. A row of frost-covered garbage cans had been lined up next to the doorway and the rank stench of spoiled food hung in the air around them like smog over L.A. The alley was deserted.
She slowed to a fast walk along the crumbling pavement, moving south, knowing their East German collaborator had been instructed to turn north after leaving the club—not that he would have gotten far before being intercepted by the KGB. The alley opened onto a quiet street one block south of the bar. A pedestrian glanced at her suspiciously but kept walking. If he noticed the blood staining her leather pants he kept it to himself. Your lucky night, pal, Tracie thought grimly.
She turned a corner and walked a hundred yards. Parked at the curb was a battered Volkswagen, at least two decades old. Tracie yanked the door open and eased into the driver’s seat. She sank into the worn fabric and rested her head against the steering wheel, breathing deeply in and out, adrenaline still coursing through her body. Then she started the car. She flicked the headlights on and drove slowly away.